Edward Schafer’s work was recommended to me recently, and this rich, nuanced, and deeply evocative book has certainly placed him on my list of scholars to watch. Schafer died in 1991; but for me he’s just been born, and it looks like his future is promising.
Schafer spent his academic life at the University of California in Berkeley, which boasts a venerable department of Asian studies. His command of his present subject—knowledge and perception of the heavens in medieval Tang Dynasty China—is assured, and his writing carries an easy erudition that can only come from a very capable mind immersed for decades in specifics and details. But his deep knowledge isn’t just that feigned passivity that some call objectivity. His obvious enthusiasm for Tang poetry clearly reflects a poetic sensibility getting on better with scientific discipline in Schafer’s mind than it ever does in the general culture. So, after a brief caveat at the start for the unprepared, he starts unfurling both his knowledge of Tang astronomy and stellar religion, and, intertwined, his sincere imaginative efforts to step into the Tang mindset; how the medieval Chinese saw things.
The historical detail, and lists of astronomical data—some aspects of the book vaguely stirred the schoolboy bored by two-dimensional history in me. But the text is almost always an easy read. Schafer seems to be someone who highly values clarity of expression, which I think is precisely why he waxes lyrical. He sees that imaginative paricipation is the basis of the human experience, and our appreciation of other cultures is muddy and distorted without a respectful but bold attempt to see the world through their eyes and hearts.
His passion for clarity also, I feel, explains the occasional flurry of adjectives that all but the crossword fanatics will have never even heard of. “Nacreous” sticks in my mind as a term that I learned reading this book. It seemed an incongruous and gratuitous bit of obscurity for a moment. But finding out its definition is “having the quality of mother-of-pearl” made it plain: entering the medieval Taoist mental space means cultivating a finer gradation of appreciation for the textures, qualities and atmospheres that they paid attention to. It also means careful translation and etymology. Schafer’s discussion of his various personal translations of key terms is always fascinating, you can feel his at once meticulous and playful intelligence at work.
For me, Pacing The Void builds, and its quietly spectacular climax is the near-final chapters on ‘Astral Cults’ and ‘Flight Beyond The World’. His descriptions of “star treading” ceremonies, where priests would stagger along the paths of asterisms laid out on the ground; his tour of the “Grotto Heavens”, the miniature universes some Taoists believed were nestled in the depths of mountains; his descriptions of the Jade Women and other divinities that inhabit the crystalline cities behind the stars; all this is magically compelling material, brought to radiant life. When he describes the observatory/monasteries high in the mountains, you’re right there in the clear pine-scented darkness, absorbing the astral essences into your body.
The stony mountains of earth are all about us—but we know well that they are no more than opaque encrustations which conceal the interior of the cosmic geode from vulgar eyes. We still yearn for the crystal spires within.
Edward H. Schafer